The selections for my book club with friends can vary widely, but we often return to two major themes: books about books and World War II historical fiction. When we can combine those two themes, so much the better! A recent pick was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, an epistolary novel where fictionalized survivors of the Nazi German occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II share their stories with a writer looking for a new writing subject. These survivors experienced deep trauma and used both books and community to endure a horrific experience. While the book itself is fiction, the truth of the experiences of those who really survived this little-known time in history is relevant for library school students.
(For the purposes of this post, I’ll abbreviate the very long title to just Guernsey, as the recent Netflix adaptation chose to do.)
Writer Juliet is the central character of Guernsey, with most of the letters in the book either written by or to her. After receiving a letter from someone on the Isle of Guernsey, she becomes intrigued by their stories and welcomes further letters from the group. With each letter, we learn more about the devastating circumstances on the island during the War and how the letter writers invented a Literary Society on a lark to keep the suspicions of Nazi soldiers at bay. What began as a joke turned into something deeply meaningful and sustaining during horrific times. They discussed books together, lived life under oppressive occupation as friends were sent to concentration camps and slaves were brought to work on the island by the Nazis, and shared food when they could as starvation set in towards the end of the war.
Guernsey swerves in tone almost like real life does, when good circumstances can be quickly followed by devastating revelations. One letter tells a funny anecdote while the next reveals the devastating circumstances of slaves on the island or the conditions of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. There are tales of normal everyday life and the joys of books and camaraderie juxtaposed to the nightmare that is occupation and war. (Reader’s tip: the dark moments make this book decidedly not-bedtime reading). Even in the midst of the darkness, the many vivid characters make this book both enjoyable and meaningful.
As I read Guernsey for book club, I of course thought about how it related to libraries, which is a side effect of both library school and my own constantly analyzing nature. The members of the Society as described in Guernsey pulled together as a community to fight quietly against the tyranny under which they lived. They had no official library but they utilized some of the same components of a library: community, people, and books. When times were the worst that they could be, they clung to that foundation. The characters of Guernsey and the real people who lived in that devastating time in history remind me of the importance of focusing on what matters most in life, even and especially in difficult times.
What books inspire you?
Sarah Davis is a Bilingual Youth Librarian at a public library in Oklahoma and an MLIS student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.
This post is part of an occasional series discussing how non-library-school-specific books and materials are relevant to library school students. To read others in this series, check out the tag Reviews.